Trick or Treat: Why Halloween Is Our Most Complete and Realistic Holiday

Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Atlanta, Ga.

What do you remember most about Halloween? For me it was getting the candy. Each year I would pester my mom to make, or buy, me a real cool costume so I wouldn’t be embarrassed at school. Most of the time she came through, but the costume didn’t matter much by the time I started trick or treating, in fact half the time the costume was in tatters when the sun went down. All that mattered was that I had a big bag, or sometimes a pillowcase, strong legs and a hearty “trick or treat” voice so that I could score as much candy as I could carry. I guess you might say that I learned about greed every October 31st.

Greed might be a great topic for a sermon, but I don’t think Halloween is about greed, as much as it is about the “somewhere between” we just sang about. One of the reasons I have come to love Halloween so much is because it is a holiday when we can let our hair down, have some fun and reflect on some of the mysterious questions life — and death — have to offer us.

I did not realize it when I was filling my trick or treat bag with candy, but Halloween is the oldest — and one of the most religious — holidays we celebrate. I think it is one of my favorite holidays because it is such a hodgepodge of traditions and rituals that have come together over the years. It may just be one of the most Unitarian Universalist holidays on the calendar.

The roots of Halloween

Halloween’s roots go back more than 2,000 years to when the Celts celebrated October 31st as the eve of their festival of Samoan, and the beginning of a new year. Samoan, which was the name they gave their Lord of the Dead, was a joyous festival that celebrated the beginning of a new year, the time of darkness — and said goodbye to the old year, the time of light. The night before the new year, October 31st , was the holiest night of the year, when the veil between the world of the living and dead was at its thinnest. The Celts believed both good and evil spirits came out to visit and play on the eve of Samoan and had feasts, lit fires of protection and offered sacrifices to the ghosts of the dead who were patrolling the night.

When Christianity began to grow, the powers that be didn’t care much for this pagan celebration and wanted to eliminate it. When it was clear that the Celts and other peasants of Northern Europe were not about to stop celebrating this sacred night, Pope Gregory decided to make the night more consistent with the Christian message. In the ninth century he moved All Saints’ Day, sometimes called All Hallows’ Day, from May 1st to November 1st, and October 31st became All Hallows’ Eve. Halloween was the night to celebrate all souls, living or dead — and especially those of the Christian saints and martyrs.

Halloween has become a holiday that has something for almost everyone. It has pagan origins and rituals, it honors the turning of the earth and the sacredness of the seasons, it includes both Christian and Wiccan traditions, it has the fun of dressing in scary costumes and the somberness and/or joy of honoring the dead. And it has the trick-or-treat bag.

The good and bad of trick-or-treat

The most unforgettable symbol of Halloween for me has always been the trick-or-treat bag. The bag where people throw the most delicious treats known to a 10-year-old stomach, as well as the most boring and tasteless “treats” (e.g., an apple) that only a dentist could love. When I ask people about their memories of Halloween, I find that many people are like me, and picking between the good and bad loot is their best memory of Halloween night. Knowing that some of you miss that Halloween ritual as much as I do (and no, it’s not the same helping your kids or grandkids do it), I thought we should check out the trick-or-treat bag of life and see what we can learn about the good stuff and the bad stuff that Halloween brings us.

We must start with the candy. There are few things in life that all people, especially Unitarian Universalists, can agree to as being either good or bad. Chocolate and raisins are two of these. I do not know anyone who gave away his or her Three Musketeers bars, because they had chocolate in them. I also know that none of my friends were happy when they found a box of raisins in their trick or treat bag at the end of the night. Chocolate and raisins are two of the rare things in life that can clearly be labeled good and bad (at least for a 9-year-old). Chocolate is like sunsets and babies — good and precious. Raisins are like plagues and bee stings — bad and evil. Unfortunately most of life, and what we find in trick-or-treat bags, is not so easy to define.

Candy corn, for example. I’d like those of you who really like candy corn to raise your hands. Now those of you who don’t like candy corn raise your hands. Look around. Candy corn is candy that provokes theological reflection: Is it good or is it bad? My research tells me that roughly half of us put candy corn in the “good” column right next to chocolate, and half of us put it in the “bad” column alongside raisins.

The dilemma of candy corn reminds me of an exercise we did in the first UU church I attended in Monterey, and one we will do here next week. The ministers would stand on opposite ends of the sanctuary and make theological and religious statements about life. The statements would be something like “I am mainly fed by a loving and transcendent God,” or “I am mainly fed by the rhythms and beauty of nature.” We would then stand in the middle of the aisle and move closest to the statement that resonated most deeply within us. It was the best visual I ever had of the diversity of thought and theology among Unitarian Universalists. I find the same diversity of opinion and thought about the good and bad nature of candy corn.

But candy is only one part of the Halloween tradition. What else can we find in our bag to help us make sense out of life?

Masks aren’t just for Halloween

A mask. What would Halloween be without masks and costumes? We look forward to seeing little people, and big people, dress up every year and become witches, ballerinas, pirates and monsters. Creatures and animals we can only become on Halloween one of the most magical days of the year.

Wearing a mask or costume is one of the oldest rituals we human beings share. The anthropologists have found evidence that our ancestors were wearing them more than 20,000 years ago. Cultures from around the world have used masks to help celebrate religious holidays, dress their dead and protect their living. Masks have been worn by warriors in battle to conceal their emotions, actors to transform their identity, shamans to gain extra powers, and hockey goalies to protect their teeth.

One of the reasons we wear masks is so we can become someone different than who we are. This is part of the fun of Halloween, Mardi Gras, and playing dress-up when we are little kids. Masks help take away our inhibitions and let the world see another side of us, a side we may be too afraid to let out. But masks, like almost everything about Halloween, are not only about fun and games.

Masks can hide evil as well as good. One of the ways we know who the bad guys in the world are, is by the masks they wear. Freddie Krueger wears a mask, bank robbers wear masks, and so do the Ku Klux Klan. These are the masks that frighten us for fun on Halloween and for real the rest of the year.

If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we wear masks every day, not only on Halloween. Some of these are real, and some are metaphorical. I dress in special clothes when I go to work on Sunday, I usually show one face to strangers and another to friends, and sometimes I act differently when I am playing the role of a parent than when I am playing the role of a minister. I am not always happy with the masks I show the world because my masks frequently get in the way of connecting more deeply with the people around me.

One of the most important spiritual challenges each one of us faces is to be the most whole and authentic person we can be with everyone we meet. The question we must ask ourselves is this: Are the masks we are wearing, both real and pretend, helping us to become who we truly are — or are they acting as a shield which separates us from other people, ourselves and the divine? Oscar Wilde answered the question this way:

We are least ourselves when we talk in our own person. Give us a mask, and we will tell you the truth.

Maybe that’s the reason we like masks so much. They make it easier for us to tell our truth. The danger in needing to wear a mask to tell our truths is that sometimes they fall off and reveal who we really are. Most of us are not as happy as the clown, as evil as the devil or as sweet as the angel we may be portraying. And this is the truth we need to be able to tell without hiding behind a mask. In congregational life we wear masks when we gossip with each other or pass on anonymous criticism. Telling the truth with love — and without masks — is one of the healthiest traits an individual or a religious community can practice.

A fine line between life and death

My bag still holds the most compelling trick -or-treat that Halloween, and life, have to offer: Death. Whether you prefer the pagan or the Christian story of Halloween, dancing with and honoring the dead is what this week is really about. We do not do death very well in this society. Perhaps one of the reasons we have turned Halloween into a night for parties and candy is because we are not very good at facing death. The next week offers us the opportunity to reflect on death and embrace all of it — both the good and the bad.

Why do we struggle so much in accepting and facing death? I think it is mainly because we are afraid. Afraid of the unknown that comes with death, afraid death will visit us before our time, afraid of the pain and sorrow death brings with it, and perhaps most of all, afraid we must give up something we treasure — our lives. We hide death away in a closet where it cannot be seen and we do not have to talk about it. We send our dying to hospitals so we do not have to see them suffer and when they die; we send them to a mortician who puts makeup on them and dresses them up in their finest clothes. Although we know that one day death will knock on our door, we do our best to pretend it will happen to someone else and not us.

Our fear of death can stop us from living life to its fullest. Steven Levine, an author and teacher whose work with death and dying has deeply influenced the way I look at death and life, tells the story of a friend who had been meditating for a long time and wanted to start working with a Zen master. His friend asked the roshi if he could study with him, and the master replied: “Are you prepared to die?” Levine’s friend shook his head in bewilderment and said, “I didn’t come here to die. I came here to learn Zen.” The master responded by saying “If you are not willing to die, you are not ready to let go into life. Come back when you are ready to enter directly, excluding nothing.”

The rituals of Halloween and the days that follow can teach us how to let go into life and embrace death, if we look past the masked children visiting our homes this week to those people in other cultures and places. The Celts and their Saween festival remind us that we dance a very fine line between life and death. My favorite ritual to honor and embrace death is the Mexican tradition, Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. For three days from October 31st to November 2nd, many Mexicans joyously celebrate and honor the dead by decorating graves with flowers, ceramic skulls and candy skeletons. At midnight the elders go to the cemetery to pray while the children play cards and dice on tombstones lit by candles. Families picnic on gravesites as mariachi bands serenade them with dead loved ones’ favorite songs. These rituals are a main reason why one scholar has observed that “Mexicans do not make a sharp distinction between the living and the dead. One can pass with ease and frequency between the two states. The dead miss us and we know they are never far from us.”

Recent events have reminded us that death is never far from us. Even if we did not lose a relative, a friend or a friend of a friend on September 11th, we all feel a little bit closer to death and more aware that are lives are finite. People in other countries around the world have lived with the fear that their death might be around the corner much more than we have in this country. For some this awareness can have a sobering and motivational effect on their lives; for some it can be paralyzing.

As a minister I get the chance to be with people facing death — either their own or someone’s who they love — often. I have come to believe that the main reason we want to hide from death is because death hurts — a lot. The pain and grief of losing someone we love never quite goes away. Although we may turn to other people, God or the cycle of nature for comfort and healing, the spot our loved ones leave in our hearts will always be tender.

Perhaps that is why our rituals for celebrating and remembering the dead are so important. They give us an opportunity to re-live the memories of the people who touched our lives and made them richer. They give us permission to laugh at death and rejoice at life. They remind us how precious and fragile life really is. This is the treat that can come from the cruel trick of death.

Halloween is the most complete and realistic holiday we celebrate. No other holiday honors both the goodness of life and its sorrows so fully. Halloween gives us permission to be a saint and a sinner, a gentle soul and an angry monster, a devil and an angel and most importantly, alive and dead.

I would like to leave you this morning with a Buddhist saying which are the closest words I have to a motto for my life and is probably the best description for Halloween I can think of other than trick or treat. The saying is simply this:

May you joyfully participate in the sorrows of the world.

May you joyfully participate in the sorrows of the world.

Shalom. Blessed Be. Amen.